All cigarettes are pretty much the same.
You’ll get minor differences – some are roll-ups, some are unfiltered, a few have different coloured paper – but basically all cigarettes are paper tubes filled with tobacco, and you use them by setting fire to one end.
Electronic cigarettes are a bit different.
When they first appeared they all looked like cigarettes, but within a couple of years that started to change. The result was a surge in the number of people vaping.
You can read more about what vaping is here.
Now there’s a huge variety of electronic cigarettes. They come in different shapes and sizes.
This can be confusing if you’re thinking about trying your first one – so confusing it might be tempting to just give up on the idea to quit smoking.
Don’t do that, though; it’s not actually as complicated as it seems.
Although there are hundreds of different e-cigs on the market they can be split into three basic types, which are usually called generations.
There are some big differences between each generation; here’s a simple guide that will look at the 4 main types:
- Cig-A-Like (First Generation)
- Vape Pen (Second Generation)
- Mod (Third Generation)
- Mechanical Mods
1. CIG-A-LIKE (FIRST GENERATION)
These devices are about the size and shape of a traditional cigarette and are often coloured to look like one.
For this reason, they’re usually called “cig-a-likes”.
For several years these were the only electronic cigarettes you could buy, and they’re still the first type that many people try.
Their sales aren’t growing very fast, though, as more advanced models become more popular.
Cig-a-likes’ small size makes them more familiar to smokers, but it also puts a lot of limitations on performance.
Once you allow for an atomiser, connector, switch and circuitry there isn’t a lot of space left inside a cigarette-sized cylinder.
And the amount of power that can be packed in there is pretty small.
Cig-a-like batteries usually store between 90 and 180mAh of charge, which is nowhere near enough to last a whole day of normal use.
The atomisers on cig-a-likes also suffer from their small size, although they are a lot better than they used to be.
Most modern cig-a-likes use cartomisers – disposable tips that contain the heating coil and a supply of liquid.
When the liquid runs out you unscrew the whole thing, throw it away and replace it with a new one. This is simple and convenient, but it does make cig-a-likes a lot more expensive to use than more advanced devices.
You can also buy disposable cig-a-likes. These are as simple as it gets. You buy one, use it until the battery dies then throw it away and buy another – not exactly eco-friendly.
They have the same performance limits as other rechargeable cig-a-likes, but they are extremely simple to use.
They’re even simpler than tobacco cigarettes – you don’t have to light them.
- Compact and lightweight
- Very simple to use
- Most familiar for smokers
- Short battery life
- Poor atomiser performance
- Can’t change settings
- Expensive to use
- Disposables are bad for the environment
Cig-a-likes didn’t work out for me mostly because of their limited battery capacity and how much of a pain it was to refill the cartomizers.
It was a fiddly task that took time and eventually became more of a chore and off-putting.
It’s because of this that I wouldn’t recommend them, especially if you’re new to vaping and looking for your first e-cig.
Having said this, they can be useful as backups to a larger device, or if you’re willing to sacrifice performance for simplicity.
If you’ve just switched to vaping, you’ll find that their familiar shape and size can be reassuring – but their simple atomisers and tiny batteries might not give the experience you’re looking for and may well turn you back to the toxic cancer sticks.
2. VAPE PEN (SECOND GENERATION)
E-cigarettes really became a practical alternative to smoking when second generation models started to appear.
By abandoning the cigarette-sized package and becoming larger they could give much better performance, and their refillable tanks let vapers choose from a growing range of liquid flavours.
Second generation electronic cigarettes are often called vape pens.
They’re about the size and shape of a large pen or laser pointer, which obviously means they’re much larger than a cig-a-like.
A lot of this space is used for increased battery capacity; common batteries start at 650mAh and go up to around 1,300mAh.
Even 650mAh will keep you vaping for quite a few hours; if you have one battery in use and one on charge you’re pretty much set up for the day.
These vaporisers usually have a fire button that’s pressed to activate the coil.
This moves away from the experience of a cigarette, but you can press the button a second or two before you start inhaling to let the coil heat up.
Another advantage of vape pens is that they have a standard screw fitting that can take a variety of atomisers. The most common style now is the CE4 clearomiser, but there are plenty of options.
These are all refillable tanks, which is a lot cheaper than using cartomisers.
Most second generation e-cigs run at a fixed voltage, so you can’t adjust the power to suit your own tastes, but there are some that let you adjust it.
These cost a bit more, but not much, and they can make vaping a lot more enjoyable.
- Longer battery life
- Better vapour production
- Refillable – huge choice of flavours
- Larger than cig-a-likes
Vape pens are the most popular e-cigarettes by a long way.
They’re affordable, still pretty compact and very simple to use. They also let you pick from thousands of different flavours, and it’s easy to switch between them.
For your first vape device a second generation model is probably the best choice.
3. MOD (THIRD GENERATION)
This is where advanced technology starts to appear.
Third generation devices, or mods, let you customise the experience to exactly what you want.
They’re much larger than the older styles, and nobody is ever going to mistake one for a cigarette. They also have much better performance and some other major benefits.
Firstly, mods have a lot more battery capacity. Many of them use removable batteries, so you can have one on charge and one in use.
Others have built-in batteries that vary from about 1,500mAh to over 5,000mAh. There are plenty of mods that let you vape for a whole day or more.
Mods also let you adjust settings to get the perfect vape.
At the very least, any modern one will let you adjust the power that’s going to the coil – this is called Variable Wattage, or VW.
Some also have Variable Voltage (VV), an older mode which has basically the same effect.
You can fit almost any atomiser to a mod, from simple clearomisers to drippers or tanks.
Many advanced vapers use rebuildable atomisers that let you build your own coils and wicks; others prefer to buy pre-made, replaceable coil heads.
The latest mods have a feature called Temperature Control, or TC.
On a TC device you can set the temperature you want the coil to reach; when you press the fire button the mod will heat it to that temperature then hold it there.
This gives a consistent vape and avoids any danger of burning the wick or liquid – an unpleasant experience called a “dry puff” or “dry hit”.
Some vapers call TC devices “fourth generation”, but there’s a lot of disagreement. You can read more about what Temperature Control is and how it works here.
4. MECHANICAL MODS
Finally, there are mechanical mods.
These are usually counted as the third generation, even though they actually appeared before vape pens did, but they’re very different.
They have no control circuitry and just deliver raw current from the battery to the coil.
Mech mods used to be popular because they could generate more power than third generation ones, but that’s not been true for a while.
One advantage they do have is that you can make a very small device – there’s no need for screens or circuitry, just a battery and a simple switch.
However, they’re totally unsuitable for beginners, because they’re potentially quite dangerous.
Mechs have no safety cut-outs, and unless you know exactly what you’re doing it’s easy to cause a battery fire or explosion.
For 99% of vapers there’s no good reason to buy a mech mod anymore – and if you’re looking for your first e-cigarette, a mech is a very dangerous choice.
- High battery capacity
- Customisable vape
- Huge choice of atomisers
- Can use any liquid
- Extremely cheap to run
- Larger and heavier than generations 1 and 2
- More expensive to buy
- No safety features
- Potentially dangerous for anyone that doesn’t know what they’re doing
For most vapers, a mod with VW and TC modes is the way to go.
You’ll get longer battery life, and the various options mean you can set it up to give exactly the vape you want.
They’re simple enough for beginners to use, and as you get more experienced and want to try new things the mod has the features you’ll be looking for.
Unless you absolutely have to have the smallest possible device a (non-mechanical) mod is what you should get.
Which of these devices do you prefer to use?